FAQ: Dealing with Aggression

FAQ: Dealing with Aggression

Welcome to a week long (or more!) set of posts dedicated to your frequently asked questions. I pulled these reoccurring themes from emails, comments, and facebook. If a bunch of people have the same concern – there are probably more of you too! Figured I’d start with a bang – literally – how to deal with aggression. Aggression is hands down the most critical, important, and time sensitive issue to deal with in your classroom1 Because let’s be honest – it doesn’t matter how organized you are, what math curriculum you are using, how you are charting your data – if you are getting punched in the face. Right? Before you can even think of tackling (god – I don’t even mean to make so many puns) any other issues you have GOT to decrease aggression.

If you were hoping for a magic cure all solution in this post – I’m sad to disappoint you. But you can follow the same steps with all aggressive behaviors to determine the appropriate intervention.


Determine the Function of the Behavior

Bottom line: All behaviors are done to get something. Every behavior in life. I scratch my nose to relieve the itch, I push the door shut to remove the cold breeze, I text on my phone to access attention from friends. It’s the same with aggression. Every behavior has a function (or reason for occurring). You need to figure out the function of aggression before intervening. Check out this post for more detailed info on identifying function. It basically comes down to two options, the aggressive behaviors are done to:

  1. to try to gain access to something
  2. to try to escape something 

Again – no easy solution within that. Gaining access to something can be food, toys, teacher attention, student attention, parent attention, electronics, you name it. Escaping something can be escaping work tasks, social demands, certain staff/students, changes in routine, transitions, etc.

  • Caveat: Behaviors can also result in a ‘sensory’ function – to achieve some sensory sensation. Aggression is not typically going to fall in to this category because it cannot be done alone (ie. you cannot kick yourself). Sensory behaviors will always be done alone since this internal sensory function has no social components. However – self injurious behavior (hitting yourself, biting yourself, etc.) can have a sensory function.

Now how do you figure out the function of the behavior you ask? This is the tricky part! Because I absolutely know how difficult it is to take data on aggression. Are you seriously going to bust your clipboard out mid punch to the face to make a tally? No! You are probably worrying about the safety of the students and yourself and dealing with the issue. My best advice for taking this data: your best is good enough. This data isn’t going to be published – it’s for your own use. Do it as accurate as you can and don’t stress if it’s not perfect. It won’t make that big of a deal in the long run. Make a super simple data sheet and pick a super simple behavior to target. Track single hits or minutes in meltdown. Whatever you do – keep it consistent. Check out this post for tons of data sheet suggestions and links.


Select an Intervention

You have your baseline data – now analyze it! Look at the times aggression is occurring and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do these behaviors occur usually in a specific location? Specific time of day? Particular staff or students? certain subject area or work task?
  • What tends to happen most often after the behavior occurs? What do you do as a result of the behavior? What do the students do after the behavior occurs?
  • Was there a time this behavior didn’t happen? Look at what was different at those times.

You should be able to make an educated guess about the function of the behavior. It will be a guess – we can never really know for sure until we see if the intervention works! For attention behaviors – check out this post for intervention ideas. For escape (to get out of something) behaviors – check out this post for intervention ideas. If you have some students with self injurious behaviors that could have a sensory function – read here.

Implement the Interventions

The big kahuna. Now you need to implement the intervention. KEEP TAKING DATA – it’s more important than ever now. You need to know if your intervention is working!! Again – cut yourself some slack in this area. Take data at the end of the day or every few hours if you need to. Just get some rough estimation if that’s all you could do. Suggestions:

  • Think about safety first. If you need to evacuate the room – do it. Don’t try to move the child in the meltdown (unless you have a safe time out room and staff trained to safely move a student – however still avoid this – it increases risks exponentially). You can however move the rest of the students out of harm’s way. We had to do this in my classroom a lot. Sadly – my students got in the routine of it. I assigned some of the higher functioning students a student who needs more help to be their ‘partner’ when they needed to evacuate. One aide would take the rest of the students out of the room while the other aide and I dealt with the aggression. It’s better to have your student miss out on some academics than make the most horrible phone call ever – to tell a parent their child was hurt by another student. Trust me.
  • Again – cut yourself some slack when you are dealing with extreme behaviors. Don’t plan elaborate units or lessons. Don’t get super mad at yourself if you are missing out on huge parts of your schedule. Be flexible. Like I said in this post dealing with the drama is in our job description. You can get to the rest of the schedule later. You need to first make sure everyone is safe – that is most important.
  • Let yourself vent! I completely understand how stressful and impacting these situations can be. I had such a bad situation last year that I broke out in hives each night. Easier said than done – but try not to take it personally. It’s hard when you work with a child for so long, spend sleepless nights thinking up behavior plans, put in countless hours of extra work – only to get your hair pulled and face scratched. I get it. Completely. But just keep reminding yourself not to hold it against the child. When you get home – do what you need to do to relax and rejuvenate. Cry, work out, have a glass of wine (not too many – haha), play with your kids, cook, – whatever!
  • Don’t vent to your aides! This is a tricky one. I highly recommend not spending tons of time venting with your paraprofessionals. It’s tempting. They are on the front lines of combat with you. Of anyone – they probably understand the situation the most. But keep in mind – they are dealing with this too. Your venting – or negative comments (which are okay to have!) – will only lead to a more negative environment in your classroom. You want to keep your paraprofessionals positive and empowered – not depressed, overwhelmed, and down.
  • Feel free to email me to vent :) I understand how hard it is to find someone who really understands. You closest coworker – maybe a general education second teacher – might not understand your bad day. Her rowdy students might not compare to 2 hour meltdown that left bruises and scratches. Venting is therapeutic and might provide some new outlook – so if you are ever in need of an ear to listen – I am here for you!

If you are dealing with extreme aggression – take a deep breath and make a plan. It will get better. It will not always be this bad. So keep your head up and hang in there!


  1. This is my day and past week in a nutshell- with behavior that I thought was long gone but resurfaced. Soo hard!! I drafted an email to you about it last night. This is such a God-send and says everything we all need to hear! It brings up many more questions since each child/case is so different (aka what if a student only wants to work for one adult- not the others in the room!!), but it gives me hope.Thank you as always!

    • Hi, I am currently losing a lot of sleep over one of my students. He is a fifth grade charming boy with Autism. He was moved to my class a few months ago from the higher functioning mild moderate class. He is now in my severely handicapped class full time due to extreme behaviors. I am working closely with a psychiatrist as he is exhibiting mental health meltdowns where he becomes explosive and incoherent. I have tried everything in your post to help my little boy, but nothing is working. These meltdowns do not seem to be a stem of his Autism. My staff and I are getting beat up pretty badly and despite just receiving 1:1, he is still stronger then us. Have you ever worked with kids with mental health or schizophrenic symptoms? He is such a young boy so doctors are being very cautious with medications, however until the mean time I am left to try to help him. I want to do the best I can to keep him in the public school system instead of shipping him off. Any advice from anyone would be greatly appreciated!

      • I just emailed you Melissa!

    • Hey Kristen! It’s good to know we aren’t alone in this ‘fight’ right?! Hope the rest of your week got better – feel free to shot me an email if you need some venting haha :)

  2. I LOVE your tip about not venting to paras! One of the hardest parts of our job is maintaining the attitude of the classroom especially when dealing with aggression but it truly is key to minimizing the trauma on students and staff.

    • Yes – agree! So tempting but so dangerous – haha!

  3. I’m a little late to this post but I couldn’t agree more about not venting to paras! This is my first year in a self-contained classroom and I have 5 paras. I realized about half way through the year that I shared way too much with them. It seemed natural because we all had shared experiences with these kids but the whole mood of the room became negative. It’s better now thankfully!

    Leson Plans and Lattes

    • I totally know what you mean Becky – it seems natural but in the end it always better to work to keep the atmosphere positive!

  4. thank you for your website! What are some strategies for students that get upset and run?

  5. I got hit and head butted 112 times yesterday :(

  6. Thanks, so much for this! I just started working at a high school as a 1:1 and this student has regressed. I know he is trying to test me but today was super hard. He decided to lay down in the middle of the cafeteria.I verbally prompted him to stand up but he wouldn’t. He’s way bigger than me so I wasn’t going to struggle with him in the middle of everyone. He kicked me and hit other students passing by. I tried redirecting him but he would not follow through. I had no support from the other adults. I felt like I had no control since I was worried about others around us. I came home and I cried.

    • I feel you! The situations are already so difficult but it goes to a whole new level when you feel like you are on display! It will get better. Hang in there!!

  7. I am newly married. I have 3 kids of my own, all “normal.” My stepson is almost 10, and is on the autism spectrum. He stays with us a week at a time, every other week. Last week was our first week, and it was pure hell. He is aggressive towards my children, but his dad never hold him accountable other than a fussing. He got suspended from school again this week, for about the ninth or tenth time THIS YEAR so far. I think they are finally going to expel him. He is in complete control. He has been kicked out of multiple daycares. He knows that if he pitches a fit, he will get to go home and do what he wants. Nothing is ever his fault. His dad rationalizes it and jumps at his every command. I am already considering divorce for the protection of my children. The dad will absolutely not hear an y criticism of his son. None. We’ve been through so many doctors who have not helped at all. He’s tried all of the medicines. He’s tried therapy. All a waste of money. And now we will have to pay a private school tuition. I am despondent. I see the end of my relationship in the very near future. Any advice?

    • Laura, I am so sorry to hear this. Dealing with aggression can have extreme effects on the family unit. Everyone goes into crisis mode. I would recommend finding a behavior analyst in your area and look into getting some in home therapy to work on the situation in the household. Good luck and hang in there!

  8. Thank you. I was looking for a pep talk this morning. I’m not breaking out in hives but I can totally related to losing sleep trying to come up with interventions and plans. The hardest part for me right now is I’m not used to having to say “I just don’t know” when someone asks me, “what do we do now?” or “what do we try next?”.

    • I COMPLETELY agree with you. It’s hard when everyone looks to you and you don’t have an answer. Hang in there!


Keep the discussion going! What are your thoughts?